WHAT Hibernian could really do with right now is a free-scoring striker, full of confidence and courage, preferably with a point to prove, which is probably why Jason Cummings was given his first start for the club at Easter Road on Saturday.
Hibernian 0-0 St Johnstone
Admittedly, the 18-year-old was no more capable than his team-mates of breaking down ten-man St Johnstone, but there is every sign that the goals will come. After all, that is what happened to him in the club’s under-20 team, for whom he has scored 30 times this season.
“Hopefully I start scoring goals for the first team,” said Cummings. “Once I get my first goal, I’ll have the confidence to just keep banging them in. That’s what it was like with the 20s. I don’t think I scored in my first three or four games, but after that I started scoring hat-tricks. That’s what I want: to get my first goal and then, hopefully, more will come.”
Heaven knows, Hibs need them from somewhere. They are the lowest-scoring team in the Scottish Premiership. In their last seven league games, they have found the net only once. On Saturday, they drew a blank against a St Johnstone side who played for over an hour with ten men, thanks to the first-half dismissal of Paddy Cregg, just seconds after he had come on as a substitute.
Although Hibs had a penalty claim controversially turned down during a late flurry in which Alan Mannus also saved a James Collins header, Terry Butcher, the Hibs manager, made no attempt to disguise the truth. His team are short of ideas, low on confidence, and all too aware of it.
His theory is that they do not respond well to the burden of expectation. That is why they have won only once at home in the league this season. It is also why they played better before Cregg’s departure for a lunge at Paul Cairney. “You can sense there is a fear of winning,” said the manager.
No wonder he is trying his luck with Cummings, who acknowledges the pressure, but chooses to embrace it. After just four appearances in the first team, the striker, who has also been playing for Hibs in the East of Scotland League, is adapting to the challenge, physically and mentally.
“I’ve come on three times as a sub, but this was my first start,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying it. It’s a bit more physical than the under-20s. All the players are a bit older. Some are slower, but most of them are more aggressive. My legs are in bits. But that’s what it’s all about. With the 20s, you see about 50 people if you’re lucky, people with their dug and that. Here there were about 10,000. It’s a wee bit more scarey. I was a bit intimidated, but it’s good. I love it, thrive off it.”
Cummings spent five years with Hearts, only to miss two seasons with knee injuries that required three operations. On his return, he thought he was playing well, but they called him to say he was being released. “They just pied me,” says Cummings, who took it badly.
Last season, he returned to form at Hutchison Vale, his first club. Hearts came back in to offer him a second chance, but he was in no mood to do the same. “I could have gone back, but I just didn’t want to. They had already sent me packing once. They didn’t believe in me.”
Besides, Hibs were also interested. After a trial with them, he liked the coaches and the players and saw a chance to show their city rivals that they had made a mistake. Those dark days of rejection and injury serve to motivate him now.
“None of my mates saw me for a few months when I was injured and got released. I just stayed in. I was angry, kicking my bed and that. I just remember the phone call saying ‘just leave’. I want to prove Hearts wrong and hopefully I will. [These are] better days now.”
They would have been better still had he scored against St Johnstone. Cummings had one chance, at the back post, but he failed to connect. Mannus should have been busier, although he did beat away Cairney’s first-half shot. He also prevented an own goal by the retreating Gary McDonald.
Collins was furious about the late challenge on him by Brian Easton that went unpunished, but it might have been worse for Hibs had Stevie May converted the visitors’ one chance of the afternoon, a close-range effort, blocked by Scott Robertson.
The Perth side started badly but showed resilience and character after Cregg’s red card, which had bizarre echoes of Rory Fallon’s a fortnight earlier. He, too, lasted less than a minute after coming on as a substitute. “I’ll have to stop making substitutions,” joked St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright.